Last night, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend an event screening for Batman: The Killing Joke, put on by Fathom Events. It was a one time, limited screening of the film (although I believe a 2nd showing has now been made available), which releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on August 2nd. While I won’t go in depth about the finer details of the film, I do wish to warn you of general spoilers before we get started.
The event began with a photo of Mark Hamill and George Lucas standing in the desert on the set of Star Wars. Mark narrates the slideshow of old pictures as he recounts a failed audition for American Graffiti, landing the lead in Star Wars, and eventually auditioning for Batman: The Animated Series. Mark was insistent on voicing a villain that had not previously appeared on screen. He wanted one of the less prominent villains, the ones that he loved but non-comic readers might not know much about. If anything, he most certainly did not want to voice the Joker. This was an actual request, in fact, as he believed there was a conflict of sorts in the actor who played Luke Skywalker turning around to voice an iconic villain such as the Joker. In the end, as we know, that’s exactly what he was cast to do.
Mark continued to discuss how he, and other cast members, were initially intimidated upon following Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in the 1989 cult classic Batman. Even then, when starting production on a cartoon, the cast knew the significance of what they were getting involved in. He found a way, however, and went on to further discuss how the character has evolved over time. The ten-minute mini-documentary wrapped up with Hamill speaking on how Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke is the harshest version of Joker he’s ever encountered, and how he was proud to be a part of it.
As announced a few months back, the film begins with an all new prologue of sorts that focuses on Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. The purpose of the prologue seems to address an issue with the original graphic novel where Barbara was reduced to a trigger for Batman; another victim. Instead, this film gives her a bit more to work with before the tragic events kick off. Batgirl encounters a hotshot playboy with deep roots in the mafia business. He develops a sadistic crush on Batgirl after she spoils a couple of his robbery attempts, and makes it his mission to get closer to her. The story, while short, brings to light some of the dangers of being a young (although capable) female vigilante in a town full of degenerates.
For example, the viewer is slightly less concerned when Batman is hit with knock-out gas; we know that when Batman wakes, he will find a way to get out of whatever predicament he finds himself in. When Batgirl, however, gets hit with knock-out gas, the viewer suddenly experiences the same fear of the young woman who struggles to get to safety before passing out, knowing the horrors of what will likely happen to her (and her body) while unconscious, if left in the hands of the villain.
This realistic approach to what Batgirl struggles with on a nightly basis is paired with her growing infatuation for her boss, Batman himself. Batgirl doesn’t like it when she is put on the sidelines, and doesn’t appreciate it when Batman takes into account that she is a young woman with different vulnerabilities than he. She wants to be seen as an equal, but Batman makes it clear that they are not. This builds up to a brief hand to hand fight between the two on a rooftop that culminates in a heat of the moment intimate encounter between the two.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an intimate relationship between Barbara and Batman. In the 2014 Kyle Higgins run of Batman Beyond comics, it was shown that Barbara actually became pregnant after an affair with Batman (see Batman Beyond 2.0 #28). In this case, however, I felt that it was portrayed in a natural and reasonable light of how this happened, and the fallout of this encounter reflects even more on the overall dangers of the vigilante business. It in no way detracted from the story, and I don’t believe it was over the top. Unlike other opinions that I’ve seen floating around, I don’t believe this was done to force Batman to ‘care more’ about Barbara. Instead, I believe it was written to give more character to Barbara/Batgirl than just the victim of the story.
The prologue serves as a great lead-in to the base story of Batman: The Killing Joke, as it kicks off into the story most people already know. The Joker has escaped, and Batman is in the dark as to what horrific plan he plans to enact this time. Batman discovers that the Joker is on the run after a somber visit to Arkham, where he sits down and attempts to have a heart to heart talk with the Joker (an impersonator) in an effort to stop the inevitable fatal outcome for one of them. The Joker targets the Gordon family, in order to “make a point,” and his brutal master plan comes to light; an experiment in how much devastating tragedy it takes to turn a good man into a broken, raving lunatic. The payoff really does showcase a dedication toward bringing to life some of the most iconic panels of the original graphic novel. The film doesn’t attempt to add content that would distract from the core of the book, but instead brings a glorious animation to a story that was for years deemed too dark to tell.
Of course, a review of this film would be lacking if I didn’t address the R-rating that fans pushed for when the film was first announced. Yes, the film is rated R, but it isn’t likely for the reason viewers would have thought. There is no language, nudity, or graphic violence deserving of an R-rating within the film. Other Batman animated films, in fact, have had more language and graphic violence than this film (a recent example would be the Joker’s graphic killing spree in the 2013 feature, The Dark Knight Returns: Part 2). The 2014 Suicide Squad animated feature, Batman: Assault on Arkham, had more partial nudity and implied sex than this film as well. With Batman: The Killing Joke, however, the R-rating comes more from things that were insinuated, not necessarily seen. Those familiar with the story know that there is a strong implication of a rape that occurred behind closed doors. The graphic novel alluded to this, and the film does the same. I personally don’t think this movie was deserving of an R-rating, but it does not shy away from some strong adult themes and that was likely the reason for the final rating decision.
Overall, Batman: The Killing Joke serves as one of the most faithful adaptions of an established Batman comic. The visuals, the writing, and the tone of the film skillfully mirror that of the highly-praised, yet controversial graphic novel. The voice talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill further cement this as an achievement in cinema. Those unfamiliar with the plot should know that this is most certainly not for children, as it covers some of the more darker elements of crime fighting and the consequences of doing so.